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Organizational Resistance or Human Resistance to Change? The Science of Inertia.

March 30, 2017

Team PerformanceJohn Kotter is a New York Times bestselling author. His latest book, the wryly titled That’s Not How We Do It Here!, is an animal fable in which two clans of meerkats in the Kalahari – one large, well managed, but rigid; the other small, relaxed and innovative – attempt to survive in the face of sudden droughts and vulture attacks.

It’s a study of how past triumphs can instill a dangerous false sense of confidence in continued success, and how companies can turn threats into opportunities.

“It’s easy for [older] organizations to slide into mature characteristics, one of which is that people tend to be complacent,” says Kotter. “If something has survived for 30, 60, 160 years, you don’t get much thought about the fact it might not survive the next five.

According to Kotter, “Some of the most successful organizations on earth are far too arrogant. They’ve been too successful for too long and they think they know everything, and that’s toxic. That’s a super-killer”. Now replace “organizations” with “HR executives or general managers or leadership or mid-level managers” and you have a more specific issue.

When you look at any historical data trends, for example looking at 1950 up to the present – volume on stock exchanges, number of patents filed, the amount of data that goes around the Earth and so on, what you see is data curves that all go up exponentially, roundish curves – things changing faster every year. They don’t go up smoothly either – they bounce around – that’s volatility.

Therefore, leaders need more than a tolerance for such volatility, but an appetite for it. “Whenever you have changing conditions and turbulence, it’s actually full of opportunities,” Kotter says.

Good times allow people to establish and hold onto bad habits.

[Adversity is] a brilliant platform for a company to say, Let’s not make the goal just to survive, to not get hurt too badly – let’s make the goal to actually advance and end up in a better position than we are today.”

So why does inertia control so many people?

It’s ingrained, Kotter says, in our business culture. “The average organization is run by people who’ve been trained by previous leadership that believed making ideas happen is all about an elite few people at the top of a hierarchy,” he says. Why not get lots of people into the game – so, while doing their regular jobs, everyone helps with these bigger, more challenging issues? Having open discussions about opportunities is much smarter than appointing committees. The world has seen enough appointed committees. With committees, there’s bureaucracy, rigid accountability, metrics that measure certain things that are relevant right now but discourage people from trying new things.

A major contributor to this change-resistant culture, says Kotter, is Darwinism. “Under conditions like Brexit or the U.S.-Mexico border wall issue, our brains – and this is something which has helped us survive for hundreds of thousands of years – have a mechanism that constantly looks for threats. This mechanism is stronger in some people. The minute a person is presented with a threat (whether real or perceived through alternative facts), it sends off signals that create chemicals that put us in a flight, fight or freeze position. We (people) also have an organic desire to surround ourselves with others who think or believe like we do (social normalization need) – which has been manipulated for ions for political or organizational profit.

In addition to the emotion of fear related to observable or believed threats, and the need to be part of a herd, another part of this challenge relates to a missing skill called futuristic thinking – which can be developed. But the greater barrier to futuristic thinking are personal motivators that drive each of us to action. Our motivators actually drive the development of certain skills to the detriment of others. It takes a certain combination of personal motivators to enjoy and want to focus on the unknown. Most people don’t have the combination of personal motivators to think and act on what Kotter is promoting – group involvement in making change happen.

Kotter thinks natural selection will need more millennia to catch up with the change in human circumstances wrought by the industrial and digital revolutions. While the broader population makeup of personal motivation does shift over time, there is no indication the shifting is toward all of us becoming change agents.

So how can we as leaders bypass resistance to change?

First, de-stigmatize failure, says Kotter:
“You have to make it clear, when you’re trying new things, that you’re not going to get it all right. In a traditional mature organization there’s so much emphasis on keeping the trains running on time that if a train is late, the first instinct is to figure out who to blame.
“When you’re dealing with inventing the future, that’s just a terrible instinct. It’ll deter people who want to get involved, be creative and take intelligent risks. It’s deadly.”

Second, recognize that people are motivated by different things and they will excel when they are doing work that rewards their personal motivators. If you want change, assign people (not committees) that are motivated by new ideas and methods, who enjoy acquiring knowledge and have an internal need to generate a return on their investment of time and money.

And third, train key people throughout your organization on Kotter’s eight steps for change.

If success isn’t incentive enough, how about the existential benefits? The possibility here is not just to increase revenue and/or market share. If you’re willing, in this turbulent world we’re living in, to open up and try new things, then ask how much are you poised to take advantage of. Encouraging a culture of risk taking and eliminating a punitive culture will increase the speed of change and make everyone’s lives much nicer. Assigning the right people on the team and using a proven change process and discipline gives you a significant advantage for bypassing resistance to change.

Is it possible to consistently hire top performers? YES. Is it possible to create high-performing teams? YES. Can you create change that creates a sustainable culture of trust, engagement and speed? YES. How costly are the missteps you are taking?

Carl Nielson is a talent strategist serving global and mid-cap market leaders & high-growth small businesses. Carl’s passion throughout his career has been to co-create sustained improvements in workforce performance.

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